Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: Entry, Evangelism, Disciple Making, Church Formation, Leadership Development, and Exit and Partnership.
The map that guides the cooperative work of Southern Baptists to advance the Great Commission is the six-part missionary task. As we have seen in earlier articles in this series, missionaries first seek to establish a presence among a people and then begin to evangelize. Discipleship follows evangelism and leads into the formation of a healthy church. To ensure the ongoing health and reproduction of the church, missionaries develop leaders before reaching the final component: exit to a partnership. As we will see, however, exit does not mean abandonment.
An IMB missionary team’s goal is to carry out the missionary task among each people or place and then hand off the job of leading the churches to those national leaders they have trained. Ultimately, we want new churches from a given people or place to become our partners in advancing the Great Commission globally. Following the example of the apostles, we continue to watch and advise after we have physically moved on to another work. Yet, from the very beginning of our work, our aim is to work ourselves out of a job. We begin the missionary task with exit in mind.
“Exit does not imply abandonment. Rather, we enter into a new phase of partnership with churches as together we press on to complete the Great Commission.”
A Healthy Plan
The question of when to exit isn’t something that’s decided purely on objective criteria. We make decisions concerning when to exit with deep reliance on the leadership of the Holy Spirit, in much prayer, and in close cooperation with local church leaders. The presence of mature and reproducing churches, however, is a strong indication that it’s time to exit to a partnership.
Exit must be anticipated from the very beginning, but the execution of the exit must be accomplished in stages. It is important to consider how effectively the gospel has been rooted within the people or place. Further, it is essential to identify multiple generations where planted churches are also planting new churches.
The criteria that lead to exit from a people or place correlate to the six components of the missionary task itself. Questions must be asked about each part of the task, such as:
- First, has the missionary task been carried out within the focus people or place?
- Has a gospel witness effectively entered among the people?
- Have people been evangelized?
- Have new believers been discipled?
- Are there healthy churches sufficiently established to sustain and expand gospel presence?
- Likewise, are leaders being developed to lead churches? And is the church self-examining for the twelve biblical characteristics of a church?
- Secondly, it must be determined whether newly established churches are outwardly focused. Are the new churches now in place seeking to reach out to new peoples?
- Concerning evangelism, are national believers and churches carrying out faithfully and effectively the work of sharing the gospel? This is important because when evangelism is ignored, the church lacks a vital component necessary to multiplying into the next generation of churches.
- Does the church effectively disciple believers once evangelized? Or, if possible, is the church faithfully nurturing new discipled believers by planting new churches to care for them?
- Regarding new church formation, does the existing church leadership cultivate the same twelve characteristics of a healthy church they have developed in their own church?
- Following that, do indigenous church leaders train up new leaders in the church so the work can be carried on to the second and third generation and beyond?
- Additionally, has the new church developed to such a degree that it owns the Great Commission task for itself?
- A final factor to consider is whether a good plan for exit has been formulated and if the missionary team and national partners both desire to take the celebratory step of exit into partnership.
Pitfalls and Benefits
The obvious pitfall of ignoring the above criteria for a healthy exit is that precious resources and years of missionary effort can be wasted if exit is handled improperly. Premature exit puts the new work in danger of an early demise, but prolonged presence can also foster dependency. Discerning when to exit requires wisdom, prayer, and dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
If a church is healthy and capable of replicating, then continued involvement by missionaries can prevent that church from standing on its own. That is, exiting too late hinders healthy completion of the missionary task. On the other hand, exiting too early undermines the overall missionary task.
A tremendous benefit of healthy exit is that when healthy churches are planted, missionaries have the freedom to move on from one mission field and work in another context. By “healthy,” we mean that the church faithfully bears the twelve characteristics of a healthy church. It’s also a church that is self-led and self-financed.
Healthy, furthermore, means its people are aggressively sharing the gospel and planting new churches. Healthy further denotes they are fully able to train their own leaders well and have joined the global body of Christ in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Effective exit and ongoing partnership are enhanced through long-term partnership with US church partners. Partnership between field churches and US churches provides a mutual training ground where both are strengthened.
Exit and Partnership in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task
As stated earlier, exit does not imply abandonment. We do not lose our commitment to walk alongside churches we have planted simply because our full-time presence is no longer needed. Rather, we enter into a new phase of partnership with these churches as, together, we press on to complete the Great Commission.
However, exit and partnership represent the last component of the missionary task. Exit is the culmination of effective entry, evangelism, discipleship, church formation, and leadership development. In the overall missionary task, exit that leads to partnership is built on a firm foundation if we take care to address the missionary assignment entrusted to the church.
D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.